Health workers go unnoticed at UN General Assembly

Health workers go unnoticed at UN General Assembly
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This week marks the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), when world leaders, business executives, non-governmental organizations and issue experts come together in New York to discuss the state of the world.

As officials press forward on how to effectively achieve the sustainable development goals and make universal health coverage (UHC) a reality, far too few discussions will take place on one topic that affects the lives of over 6 billion people living in low- and middle-income countries: health workers.

Health workers are at the heart of the incredible advances made in containing epidemic outbreaks, making it possible to dramatically expand immunization coverage and the increases in maternal and child survival rates.


They stand at the front lines of care, running toward the most dangerous situations when most are running the other away. They are nurses, doctors, midwives, community health workers, lab technicians, and more. And as the numbers show, they are, for the most part, women.

We know that investing in health workers is one of the best investments a nation can make.

At the UN General Assembly in 2016, President Zuma and Former President Hollande issued their final report of High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth. In that report, it was estimated that 40 million new health and social care jobs will be created by 2030. Unfortunately, under current conditions, we will fall 18 million health workforce jobs short of what’s needed to reach SDG3 (health and wellbeing) and UHC.

The reality is simple: We cannot continue with our business-as-usual approach to health systems. By investing in the health workforce — financially and with sufficient political will — we can create a ripple effect that brings new education and employment opportunities with a proven return on investment, particularly for women and youth.

As the High-Level Commission also noted, by investing in the health sector, we can “create the conditions for inclusive economic growth and job creation as well as for greater economic stability and security.”

A recent Lancet article estimates it will take significant financial investment increasing incrementally from $104 to $274 billion between now and 2030 to reach SDG3.

If we are to take seriously what’s needed to meet the health needs of low and middle-income nations, all nations must come together around health workforce and health systems planning that guides decision-making, prioritizes policy and importantly, funds the much-needed transformation of the global health workforce.

Leading experts from around the world have contributed to a series of planning documents to aid policymakers, donor nations and aid recipient countries make informed decisions when considering how best to address health system challenges.

Whether you are a policymaker in Washington, D.C. or the minister of health in Zambia, policy frameworks including the Global strategy on human resources for health: Workforce 2030, the Health workforce requirements for universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals and the High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth provide the roadmap that will make progress possible like never before. They are the blueprint for focused global action to achieve equitable, universal health for all.

In November, an intersectoral community of over 1,000 leading experts from around the world will gather in Dublin, Ireland for the Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health. We have prepared an agenda for action on how we will succeed in achieving arguably, the most ambitious health goals ever conceived.

If we are to achieve SDG3 and UHC, it will be because we prioritized the health worker. Are they not already the very heart of the health system?

Jim Campbell is the director of the health workforce department at the World Health Organization. He oversees the development and implementation of global public goods, evidence and tools to inform national and international investments in the education, development and retention of the health and social sector workforce in pursuit of global health security, universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals. He can be followed on Twitter at @JimC_HRH.